US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Read: Ask the Beasts

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By Elizabeth A. Johnson (Bloomsbury, 2014)

In the often contentious relationship between science and theology, few issues have stirred as much controversy as the theory of evolution. Into this breach comes Elizabeth Johnson’s most recent book, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love. The title derives from the Book of Job (12:7), “Ask the beasts and they will teach you,” and Johnson turns to Charles Darwin and his foundational On the Origin of Species to discover what creation is teaching us. Johnson provides a prolonged and riveting dialogue between “Darwin’s account of the origin of species and the Christian story of the ineffable God of mercy and love recounted in the Nicene Creed.”

First Johnson traces how Darwin develops his theory of natural selection, attending closely to the details of the argument and his personal observations and experiments. Then Johnson demonstrates the power of Christian tradition to illuminate the theological ramifications of evolution. She offers an expert overview of complicated theological terrain and provides a primer on issues such as the Trinitarian view of creation, poetic biblical images for the Spirit, and the cosmic meaning of the resurrection, all in light of Darwin’s metaphor of the branching tree of life. The book launches a fervent call for ecological conversion and action on behalf of the community of life.

What sets the book apart is Johnson’s sympathetic, even affectionate portrayal of Darwin, whom she depicts as a passionate and curious seeker of the truth. One apprehends the wonder Darwin experienced in beholding nature: “This quality of fascinated delight spills over into his writing,” a quality readers will also find in Johnson’s joyful exploration of the God who makes life possible. The reader not only revels in accompanying Darwin in the discovery of natural selection, but also comes away with an invigorated sense of the liberating love of God who grounds and vivifies the entire process.

This article appeared in the June 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 6, page 43).